Loving Teaching Humans

May 19, 2012


Loving Teaching Humans

One day close to my seventeenth birthday I was reviewing the marginalia supplied by the very patient and encouraging Dr. McNally on my narrative “The Who Rock Cleveland”. Oblivious to the abbreviated advice, I wondered in genuine admiration and sarcasm “What kind of person makes their living scrawling critical red remarks on somebody’s composition?”  It’s the type of open ended curiosity that too frequently is answered ironically.

I‘m pleased have many friends who are teachers, English and otherwise. We’re a nervous, obsessive tribe of people who can find errors and fault with anything, yet continue. We expect mistakes, and take punctuation too seriously. Generally our lonesome zeal is rewarded by the larger communities of our families and non-teaching with sideways glances and sighs. People frequently put on a mask of good behavior to suit their perception of our discipline. Teachers live their lives hidden beneath the shadow of stereotype. 

We’re generally believed to be myopic, harmless, cynical, frail, eccentric, and generally oblivious. Passion is depicted for us as something false, alien, and awkward at best. Consider seeing your cinematic career depicted as Mr. Chips, Our Miss Brooks, or Dorthy Zbornak. Of the 70 or so television programs about schools and teaching, I would only want to be in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or the UK version of “Teachers” based on the single episode of each I watched.  The seasonally attractive lit-slut Anne Savoy, or creatively homicidal mathematician David Sumner are the exceptions that prove the type.  If you’re thinking of “Dangerous Minds” or “Freedom Writers” look up pictures of Luanne Johnson and Erin Gruwell. The short list of characters depicted as sexy or dangerous teachers in film and literature is probably surpassed by the actual list of former teachers, Sting, David Duchovny and DH Lawrence (still my favorite writer to over-idealize the interior lives of teachers). But both lists are short.

Somehow I’d like to imagine there’s a direct channel from correcting grammar to lucrative soft-edged porn career that I somehow overlooked in my career path, but I doubt it. The attractions most of us feel towards that “special” teacher are more jailhouse romance than storybook (except for those rarer adult storybooks generally involving more leathery vigor than red penned corrections).  You’re locked in a room with a person gabbling on about Hester Prine’s embroidery past all reason, or wondering what “This is not a sentence!” actually means in the corporeal world. Boredom is the base note for more than a few perfumes, but few of them you’d want as Valentine gifts.

 If you want to get laid go to religious convention not NCTE. Few people come back from three and a half days of sentence starters and panels on scoring rubrics and to announce they’ve met the love of their life. Mostly there’s just another new bag, a tree stump’s worth of sample brochures, a notebook full of notes and handouts ready to be filed, then discarded, and a cheap chardonnay hangover. I’m not sure what style of underwear my colleagues wear at these confabs, because I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen it because English Teachers never stop talking until someone says something wrong.

You can tell an English Teacher in your throatiest whisper “I really, really want to see you naked!” and know there’s a strikethrough on the second “really” and redun. in your margin. We can’t help it; the best we can do is try to cover it up with semi-precious hand strung necklaces and worn corduroy.  When you’re dancing  after midnight if you find “I can’t get no satisfaction” is a more inescapably annoying double negative than a loosening in your hips, or if you have added the apostrophe to killa, gansta and noted in the imaginary margin that the apostrophe indicates irregular spellings…you know what you are. You just don’t know why you can’t quit.

Some of the stereotype is accurate.  A faculty meeting is generally shrill, dull, distracted and pointlessly articulate. I don’t know many people who have followed the family trade of teaching. To watch it as intimately as a teacher’s child, teaching is a source of jealousy that appears occasionally entertaining, frequently tedious, but seldom rewarding. For many of my acquaintances that describes me. I’m another exception that proves the rule, a second generation teacher. Off and on I’ve taught some form of English for many of the thirty years I’ve lived in Texas.

After twenty years teaching arithmetic at St. Nicholas parochial school, one day in February while I was away at college, my mother decided she couldn’t finish another day of teaching. She called my father, who picked her up rather than letting her wait for her car pool ride. She put on her coat, took her purse and beige book bag, then met Dad at the side door. Once home she sipped some reheated black coffee, finished a Camel straight and went to bed with headache, her arm slung over her eyes.  She never went back to school.

Later that month she emptied the desk in the spare bedroom of any evidence of her every having been a teacher. Afterwards she would only speak to me of that day in vague and general language. “She couldn’t stand what they were doing to children.” was about as much as she could say.  Our family was used to surviving long nearly violent silences. If it weren’t for television and my mother’s all night talk radio, months could sulk past without a spoken word. Leaving her classroom was an extraordinary dysfunction. 

Quitting in the middle of the day violated too many working class precepts to be anything but what was later admitted to be a nervous breakdown. Everyone in my family was born to work. No one in my extended family knew (and probably still don’t know) a psychologist or psychiatrist in our hometown. As long as you got up the next day and went to work, you’d get better. Mental health was limited to doses of Thorazine and electroshock during a commitment at Woodside Hospital on Indianola Avenue. Instead my mother condemned herself to stay at home in perpetual embarrassment for the rest of her life. That would be a wretched end to a criminal career, let alone twenty years of dutifully explaining the fractional convolutions of invert and multiply to bored adolescents.

There are approximately 5,000,000 full-time and adjunct English Teachers in the United States according to the Digest of Educational Statistics. If you walk into an English teacher’s classroom statistically you’ll find a white woman between thirty and sixty taking attendance. With the exception of elementary school, most English teachers drift into their vocation as I did. When I graduated college teaching seemed like an honest way to make a living, to make the world a bit better and give people skills that would allow them independence and opportunities. It still is.

However I didn’t expect to have a longer career than my mother. I never expected to spend ten years in a middle school known as “el Bollio”, teach Dickens to Bloods and Crips, and revise compositions with Cambodian refugees, police cadets, or to be allowed to intimately speak to thousands of dyslexic and reading disabled people. I never expected a career at all.

Every year I signed another contract, curious how things would work out. I was curious about the students whom I arranged alphabetically in rows until I had memorized their names. In the intervening years lots of explanations have surfaced to explain my found career. The most romantically reflexive was the psycho-vocational explanation that I was trying to rescue myself from the suffering souls who I was charged with educating. It clearly wasn’t about money or prestige…or hours. I wasn’t a naturally gifted English student. I read tediously slowly, and I learned to write by selling term papers in college. But I love written words. I love books and I endure all manner of abuse to share those values.

I spent many summers working at something else to be able to afford to teach English. I drove lots of miles to branch campuses teaching night classes. The backseat of my car was a dumped file cabinet without dividers. I don’t want to know the number of bad and cold cups of coffee I sipped to keep going through the double comp class night class, or turn around a set of compositions for the Tuesday/Thursdays.  One of my old cats trained herself to sleep on a cushion on my desk under a lamp. I became (and remain) punctual, enthusiastic, and deliriously circumlocatious.

But that is just romantic illusion.

I’m drawn to the written forms of English because I’m terrified of the chaos of the world that has pursued me since early childhood.  I stammer. I’m partially deaf and it’s for a variety of neurological reasons I read slowly. My art career ended in late adolescence I was diagnosed with deuteronomaly.  Writing, however tedious or tendentious, has been my expressive religion.  Like a long marriage it developed through affection, repetition, failing and losses into a huge unreliable memory. The linguistic process of a declarative sentence at least allows me to put the ideas in my head into a pattern that can be translated by another human.

For the first third of my life I was a willing and frequent correspondent with many of my friends. It was more the times and technology than any genuine gift, but it seemed we wrote a lot. Letters, notes, bad poems, complaints, all had the thrill of possibly being confiscated, read at random,  lost in library books or kept indefinitely in a stationary box of someone’s mind.  After I devolved into an English Teacher, many of my friends stopped writing, at least to me.  Whatever intimacies we had shared seemed to dissipate under the high intensity lamp of my profession…or more accurately my red pen. For the record I’ve never used a red pen.

In my philosophy there are two kinds of people who find themselves motivated to remain past two years as a teacher. The first are those souls who found school such a perfect place that they could not imagine a better place and remain there…forever. They are the Guardians of the Grail. The second found school painful, abusive, but crucially useful in spite of itself. They come to school each morning to on an errand of rescue. They are on the Quest for the Lost Grail. Percival is, of course, the student. Now I’m preparing to forego the Quest.

Over the years I watched more than a few teachers leave. Most of us end up in a restaurant awkwardly hugging people we’ve seen for years, or haven’t seen for years. Maybe an administrator drops by for a few moments of condescension. There are a couple going away gifts and a quarter sheet cake. Everybody takes a picture, promises to stay in touch and disappears. That’s about the best teachers hope for. Beyond the retirement party and disappearance I’ve shaken hands and given tissues to many colleagues who didn’t make it through the year. Surprise medical leaves, forced resignations, escorted from campus by security, arrested, sedated, some just didn’t show back up, some didn’t get their contracts renewed in spite of good work, some driven out, others just got cut by budget battles. We all end some semester.

I might have a few more semesters left, but it seems my end is nearer than distant. These days I don’t feel old until the afternoon. Then that promise I made to myself to be the most enthusiastic person in any classroom I enter, gets harder to keep. When you’re young the drugs and alcohol are recreational. Once you make a couple down payments, the psychotropics start not to work as well. You have a favorite hard liquor.  There’s a cheap, drip coffee pot you share with the person in your horizontal planning group and it gets washed twice a year. You’re putting on weight and the gossip has changed from titillating to just mean. You start to feel the target on your back is your future…inevitable as a period.